It’s summertime, dolls — time for an outdoor soiree. So says Carla McDonald, Austin hostess, former marketing executive, television host and founder of the entertaining website the Salonnière (thesalonniere.com). With a tone aptly self-described as “conversational and frolicsome,” McDonald and her associates dish details on how to throw fabulous fetes, illustrating the articles with vintage photos that toss a saucy wink to parties of the past.
Playfulness aside, McDonald believes in the power of parties in a very serious way. “Social gatherings and parties are certainly fun, but they’re more than that,” she says. “They’re a very important part of human existence and life and culture. We have an innate need to connect with one another.”
And we needn’t stop partying just because it’s summer in Texas. Poll results released earlier this season by the Salonnière attest that people prefer outdoor parties during the hottest months. “It’s hot everywhere in the summer,” says McDonald. “It doesn’t really get in the way of people getting together to connect.”
On the contrary, says McDonald, summertime is a perfect season to gather. It’s already a nostalgic time, and nostalgia makes an excellent starting point for a party. “We all have such wonderful memories as kids of summer,” she says. Party hosts can tap into those feelings. “Put up a little tree swing or tire swing and let your guests have fun on that, just like they did when they were kids.” Activities that remind us of our childhood, she says, can help trigger good memories and make parties more enjoyable.
McDonald finds inspiration for her own parties and for her website in the famed “salons” of 17th and 18th century France. (Salonnière is the French word for the hostess of such a gathering.) The salons generally took place in individual homes and encouraged discussion of culture and ideas among members of the thriving, Enlightenment-era intellectual class. Historians credit salons with propelling France from its old, feudal monarchy ways into its Republican future. Many also regard the salons as an early exercise in women’s empowerment. As hostesses, salonnières wielded new power to select invitees and steer conversation, and thus the evolution of ideas.
McDonald says that the key to entertaining in the summer is to keep people comfortable and safe — and there are countless ways to do so. Start with timing. “It’s probably not the best idea to have a party right in the middle of the day,” she says. Consider brunch or a late dinner instead. Or perhaps an evening ice cream social. Or a late-night dessert party.
No matter the time of day, McDonald says it’s important to help guests stay cool by providing plenty of shade, perhaps an electric fan, and access to the air-conditioning inside so guests can come in to cool off if they need to.
Hydration, too, is essential. “You don’t want people hydrating on alcohol,” she says. “You want to make sure you are constantly serving glasses of water.” Sound boring? Stud it with frozen berries, or infuse it with fresh herbs to make it more appealing. Complement it with a festive-looking drink made from coconut water, a staple hydrator in hot climates around the tropics.
For outside parties, half the decorating is done before you start with lush greenery all around us after a quenchingly wet spring. The downside is that the rain has also nurtured a bumper crop of mosquitoes and other pesky insects. Even blood-sucking bugs can’t deter McDonald, though. Provide bug spray (far from the food) and deploy citronella candles and tiki torches around the perimeter of your party area, she counsels. Maybe send guests home with an itch stick as a party favor, just in case.
“It is what it is,” says McDonald, who was born in Germany and grew up following her father, an engineer in the oil business, all over the world. “You can’t run away from the fact that summer is hot here and everywhere.” McDonald and her family spend time each summer at their home on Nantucket Island and face heat there, too, when they host clambakes on the beach.
A clambake might feel out of place in Austin, but it’s a good example of McDonald’s other rule for summer parties: Keep it casual. “When things are fussy, it can make you feel warmer,” she says. Guests should feel comfortable wearing shorts, sundresses, and flip-flops — even swimsuits, if you have a pool.
The casual mood should extend to the food at any outdoor summer gathering. In the Salonnière poll, half of respondents cited barbecue as their favorite summer party format, so don’t disappoint. Grilled shrimp, steak, burgers, marinated tofu, and local sausage make for great main courses — and conversation ignites around the grill as cooks compare notes and techniques.
For a side, let the tangy juice of heirloom tomatoes hydrate your guests by serving them simply sliced and mixed with sherry vinegar and citrus zest. Don’t forget the watermelon, recognized since colonial times as a refreshing, outdoor-friendly food.
Come dessert, aim for cold and light. Chilled lemon bars deliver energizing tang. A frozen icebox cake can ramp up the nostalgia. If you really want to transport guests back to the festive zeal of their youth, serve them popsicles or sno-cones. Then get in line for your own turn on that tire swing.
“Chef Lulu Powers (who wrote the book ‘Lulu Powers: From Food to Flowers’) developed this for me when I asked her for something yummy, healthy and hydrating to serve guests under the Texas summer sun,” Carla McDonald says. “It’s wonderful and beautiful.”
1 cup coconut water
5 blackberries (fresh or frozen)
1 Persian cucumber, peeled
3 mint leaves
3 ice cubes
Put in a blender and blend. Pour into a glass with ice cubes. Garnish with frozen grapes, blackberries and fresh mint. Serves one, so double, triple, etc. as needed.
— Adapted from a recipe by Lulu Powers
Watermelon, Cucumber, Feta and Mint Salad
1 personal-sized watermelon, cut into bite-sized chunks
2 cucumbers, cut into bite-sized chunks
8 oz. crumbled feta cheese
Juice of 4 limes
4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
20 fresh organic mint leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Toss the watermelon and cucumber together in a large bowl with the olive oil, lime juice and a touch of sea salt and pepper. Chiffonade the mint leaves. Sprinkle the feta and mint on top of the salad just before serving. Toss the salad at the table. Serves 8.
— Carla McDonald
Heirloom Tomatoes with Orange Zest
“So simple, but so delicious, refreshing and beautiful!” – Carla McDonald
5 large (and colorful!) heirloom tomatoes, sliced thinly
2 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
The finely grated zest of 4 small oranges
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Arrange the tomatoes on a platter. Scatter the orange zest over the tomatoes and dress them with the sherry vinegar. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately. Serves 8.
– Carla McDonald
“When I met Martha Stewart,” McDonald says, “she said these were her favorite dessert. I tried them and can see why. They are fabulous and so refreshing.”
3/4 cup all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for sifting
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
For the lemon filling:
4 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice, strained of seeds
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with rack in center. Coat a 8-inch or 9-inch square baking pan with cooking spray; line pan with two crisscrossed rectangles of parchment paper, folding excess to hang over sides.
To make the crust: In a food processor, pulse flour with confectioners’ sugar, cornstarch and salt. Add butter; pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. (If you don’t have a food processor, you can make the crust by mixing together the dry ingredients in a large bowl, and then rubbing in the butter with your fingers.) Press into bottom and 3/4 inch up sides of prepared pan. Refrigerate 15 minutes.
Bake until crust is lightly browned, 20 minutes. Let cool slightly in pan. Reduce oven heat to 325 degrees.
Meanwhile, make the lemon filling: In a bowl, beat eggs with an electric mixer until thick. Beat in granulated sugar, lemon juice, flour, baking powder, and salt. Pour over warm crust. Bake until set, about 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature; refrigerate about 1 hour.
Using paper overhang as an aid, lift square from pan. Sift remaining tablespoon confectioners’ sugar over the top. Cut into 16 squares. Refrigerate until serving if serving outdoors.
— Adapted from a recipe on Marthastewart.com
Peach and Mango Sangria
2/3 cup water
2/3 cup sugar
2 cups Grand Marnier
2 bottles white wine (a Viognier is best)
4 peaches, cut into thin wedges (can substitute frozen wedges)
2 mangoes, chopped
1/2 cup mint
In a saucepan, cook the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves. Refrigerate until cold. In a pitcher, stir together the Grand Marnier, Viognier, mango, peaches and mint. Add sugar syrup gradually, tasting and adding more only to reach desired sweetness. Serve over ice. Serves 8.
— Carla McDonald
Dilled Orzo Salad
This tangy, healthy spin on pasta salad works alongside meat cooked on the grill — or all alone for a light lunch.
1 cup uncooked orzo
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 19-oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed well
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions, white and green parts
1/2 cup (2 oz.) feta, crumbled
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
Cook pasta according to package instructions, or until tender.
While pasta cooks, combine lemon juice, olive oil, salt and garlic in a large bowl. When pasta is done, drain. Pour dressing over hot pasta and toss. When cool, mix in chickpeas, green onions, feta and dill. Salad can be made a day in advance. Serves 8.
— Adapted by Beth Goulart Monson from a recipe in Cooking Light
Pressing tofu helps it absorb more flavor from its marinade — and hold together better on the grill.
1 block firm tofu
Juice of 1 orange
2 Tbsp. sesame oil
2 Tbsp. dark soy sauce
1 tsp. salt
Several hours in advance of cooking, press the tofu by laying two folded tea towels smoothly on a tray (or cookie sheet or two large plates), then top with one paper towel (to prevent lint from sticking to tofu). Drain tofu, then slice into half-inch slices. Arrange tofu on top so that pieces aren’t touching each other. Top with another paper towel, two more folded tea towels, then another tray. Place several heavy cookbooks on top and let sit for 2 to 3 hours.
To make the marinade, combine orange juice, sesame oil, soy sauce and salt in a measuring cup. Add water to make 1 cup.
Arrange tofu in an 8-inch-square baking dish. Pour marinade over tofu and turn to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour. Meanwhile, soak bamboo skewers in water.
When ready to grill, pass two skewers through opposite ends of two pieces of tofu, creating a “raft” that will be easy to handle with tongs on the grill (grasping skewers). Cook on a hot part of the grill until grill marks appear on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. Serves 4.
— Beth Goulart Monson
Cucumber-Lime-Mint Grownup Pops
These frozen cocktails feel festive. The alcohol results in a slightly slushy pop that’s lots of fun to eat.
1/2 cup sugar
1 English cucumber, cut crosswise into very thin slices
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (from about 5 limes)
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
1 tsp. finely grated lime zest
1/4 cup gin
In a saucepan, combine the sugar, half of the cucumber slices (about 20), the lime juice and the mint leaves. Pour in 1 ¾ cups water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
Strain the cucumber mixture into a 4-cup measure with a pour spout. Add the lime zest and gin and stir to combine.
Divide the cucumber mixture among the molds. Then, divide the remaining cucumber slices among the molds, using a stick to push the slices down into the molds. Insert sticks into the molds when the pops are partially frozen, after about 1 hour, then freeze until solid, or at least 3 more hours or up to 3 days. Makes 8-10.
— From “Ice Pops: Recipes for Fresh and Flavorful Frozen Treats” by Shelly Kaldunski (Weldon Owen, 2010)